On the one hand, "Parenthood" had no business being paneled during NBC's day at press tour on Saturday. TCA is generally designed to promote new shows; if returning series are paneled at all, it's usually at midseason, or it's a big hit celebrating a milestone of some kind. NBC had a very full day of panels, and didn't even have room for one of its new fall shows ("Dracula").
On the other hand, "Parenthood" is exactly the kind of show that deserves a spot at press tour. It's a modestly-rated series that critics love and always enjoy having excuses to write about. It's coming off its best season to date, which featured powerhouse story arcs about cancer, PTSD and a difficult adoption, among others. And it's moving into a new timeslot, Thursdays at 10 (starting on September 26), that once was where NBC put its very best dramas — shows like "Hill Street Blues," "LA Law" and "ER," which were also among the very best TV had to offer in that era — but which has become something of a radioactive wasteland in the last couple of years.
"Parenthood," in other words, is a show that deserved some love from the critics, and also one that needed that love.
"You get associated with a show that you love and a show that you believe in and a cast that’s just extraordinary, and you get frustrated with the fact that it’s it doesn’t seem to be honored the way that you feel it should be," said star Craig T. Nelson, who recently criticized NBC's handling of the show in an interview. "And the quality of the work, the quality of the writing, the quality of the directing — I've done 18 years of series television, and I haven’t been associated with a show that’s been this wonderful. So I felt I had an obligation as patriarch of this dysfunctional family to speak out. I just felt that, to me, NBC hadn’t been promoting and marketing the show correctly or enough, and I just wanted to see it happen more, and I believed in the show, and I spoke out about it, and, you know, I’m proud of that. That’s what Zeek Braverman does."
But the very fact that they were having the panel "is indicative of the passion that the network does feel for the show," explained creator Jason Katims. "We want to see that the show is getting out there to as many people as possible, because we're all very proud of it. I feel a real passion from the network about it. I know that (NBC chairman) Bob Greenblatt from the day he came onto the (network) is an enormous supporter of the show."
He likes the move to the new night, and the fact that they'll have a full 22-episode season this year rather than last year's 15, and added, "We definitely have had our struggles and our frustrations along the way, but I feel so positive right now about it."
Katims reflected on the fourth season and how he would attempt to follow those big stories — including the magnificent tear jerker about Kristina Braverman getting breast cancer, which should have garnered several Emmy nominations (especially for Monica Potter), when the show was ignored as usual in favor of edgier cable shows — in the upcoming season.
He said that most of the stories come out of experiences that the creative team has had (Katims' son, like Adam and Kristina's son Max, has Asperger's, and his wife's breast cancer is in remission), and that the goal is always to balance different tones and types of stories.
"Last year," he said, "because we were doing the cancer storyline, it was really important for us to do the romantic triangle with Lauren (Graham) and Ray (Romano) and Jason Ritter, because I think a balance is really important."
This year, Adam and Kristina will make decisions based on what happened with the cancer fight, while Graham's Sarah will try to "not be focused solely on a romantic relationship" and try to figure out what else is happening in her life.
(To which I say "amen." Graham can do so much more than just be stuck in love triangles season after season, and I was amused to hear her compare Sarah in season 5 to Schneider on "One Day At A Time.")
And each year, Katims tries to bring in new characters to interact with the various Bravermans. Last year's big addition, Romano's socially awkward photographer Hank, will return, and Sonya Walger (Penny from "Lost") and David Denman (Roy from "The Office") will play two characters whose presence means, according to Katims, "You might want to be a little concerned for Joel and Julia."
(As he said this, Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger had expressions of mock horror, while several critics were taking to Twitter to declare pre-emptive outrage in case Joel and Julia actually break up.)
"From the beginning of doing a show," he said, "I felt if it was just basically our characters, the show would implode and turn in on itself very quickly. It's bringing in the outside world. A great example is Jason Ritter and Ray Romano coming into the show, and what they've done to help build out what the show is and what it's capable of. I look at the addition of those actors in a similar way."
Getting back to the cancer arc, Potter said she usually does a lot of very thorough study of her scripts, pulling pages apart and highlighting passages in a way that Peter Krause and Dax Shepard mock her for, and for the cancer arc, she decided to do less work so it would seem fresher. ("Turns out we were right" to mock her, quipped Shepard.) Instead, she surrounded herself with women and families who had been through the experience.
Krause, meanwhile, said that where he often plays scenes over and over in his head after they're done, wondering what could have been done differently, his goal with the cancer scenes was to be done with them as quickly as possible.
"It wasn’t fun," he said, "but I think that it was rewarding for us to do that and also for the audience. I had a lot of people come up to me and say they were really moved by it. That’s always been the strength of the show, its relatability, and that all the characters in the show are trying to be the best people they can be, and that’s a big enough struggle, trying to be a good parent, trying to be a good partner, trying to be a good son, father, whatever. I think that that’s why people keep coming back to the show."
Some other notes from the panel:
* Max Burkholder, who plays Max Braverman, was only 11 when the show started, and he had to get a crash course in Asperger's to play the role, taking many cues from the show's technical advisors and other kids he was introduced to who are on the autistic spectrum. "But as the series has gone on," he said, "I feel that I’ve been able to sort of figure out what Max would be doing without the help of others as much, and I’ve sort of figured out who he is as a character and how best to portray him both representing the autistic community in a good way and also the uniqueness of Max that Jason created" (Shepard: "Max is now a doctor himself who teaches about autism, if anyone needs his services.")
* The new season jumps ahead seven or eight months, and Shepard's Crosby and Joy Bryant's Jasmine are taking care of their new baby. Shepard and Kristen Bell recently became parents for the first time, and he said he's so successfully deployed the techniques from "The Happiest Baby on the Block" that "Now I love babies, and I'm supposed to be frustrated with the crying baby in the scene, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, look at this little stinker!' And I will put this little baby through its paces. As soon as he or she gets on set, we have about 65 twins, I think, where they all work for 30 seconds. And we've got to shoot for 12 hours with them, so it's just a conveyor belt of babies. 'Action. Cut. Action. Cut.' We're employing 90 percent of the newborns in LA. But what's funny is, last year, whenever we would be stuck in a scene with Monica and Adam's kid, it was torture. But now that I have one, I love being around the baby. I got, like, a software upgrade. Now I love it."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org